Brazilians and Serbs progress at World Cup 2022
Today, with Group G, we continue our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—Brazil, Serbia, Cameroon, and Switzerland. This is the group of the overall tournament-favored Brazilians.
This is a group that only has one team with nearly assured progression—overall pre-tournament favorite, Brazil (ranked first in the world by FIFA). It is also a group that seems tailor-made for these Brazilians. It provides coach Tite a chance to slay his team’s traditional cup dragons which are to reach a higher gear earlier, to get the player choices and strategic set-up kinks out during the Group Stage, and to face opponents who are differently configured strategically while simultaneously being physically tough. These three opponents will challenge the entire Brazilian team—all three lines and the keeper.
Group G provides Brazil with challenging (but not overly so) opponents from the get-go. Those opponents pose three very different types of difficulties—the UEFA teams will provide the needed crucible of tough tackling, but in addition, they present very different strengths—the Serbs are very offensive-minded and their strikers are in particularly good club form, the Swiss are very good defensively, having conceded an average of one goal a game over the past twelve months while playing Spain, Italy, England, and Portugal in Nations League and friendly matches. Meanwhile, Cameroon will force the Canarinha to pay attention and respect to those competitors least expected to put up a concerted fight—this will ensure the Brazilian’s focus does not flag.
As all three teams have different strengths, Tite will have to determine the best tactics per game to ensure that the Brazilian’s offense can unlock Switzerland’s tight, deep-lying defense, and that the team’s midfield line-up can negate or counter Cameroon’s fast counterattacking offense, and that the Brazilian defense’s set-up can deal with the Serbian’s well-orchestrated, quick-moving, possession offense (who averaged two goals a game over their last ten games while playing teams such as Denmark, Portugal, and Sweden. Getting over these distinct hurdles early will set the Selecao on its way to a good cup. Stumbling will be a bad overall omen.
Meanwhile, the Swiss (ranked 15th in the world by FIFA), Serbs (21), and Cameroonians (43) will be looking to find ways of reducing the rankings gap among their group mates in order to progress in second place. Though the Swiss would seem several levels ahead of the other two, the Serbs and Cameroonians are offensive-minded teams, the opposite of the Swiss, so the teams will be pitting strength against strength when they meet. When the Serbs and Swiss met in Russia 2018 the Swiss won 2-1.
Brazil has multiple agendas at this World Cup if only one perennial objective, the trophy. The agendas are—first, that they feel they owe their nation a cup since to them 2014 was a let-down and 2018, with their talented, star-crossed, talismanic leader recovering from surgery, was a tough cup to compete in. Second, they compromised (at home) with FIFA and CONMEBOL to allow Argentina to win Copa America 2021, so they feel they are now owed a chance to get whatever they earn in Qatar. Third, this is likely Neymar’s and Tite’s last World Cup and with no Ney-level star on the Brazilian horizon, it is imperative that they win when they have the advantage.
Brazil’s Achilles heel is two-sided. First, Neymar has to grow up, allowing his maturity to approximate his talent in order to lead his team to glory. If he gets caught up in arguing with the refs or exacting retribution for every real or imagined slight, he will erase his potential contributions and doom his national side. Second, the team has to play to its strengths, and they are the best offensive team on the planet. If the Brazilians play too cautiously or try to conserve leads instead of always going for the jugular, they will stumble. This means that Tite has to make up his mind about his starting core group and stick to it with the dual exceptions of a needed recuperative break or an injury-related emergency substitution.
Allison and a four-man defensive line with Alex Sandro, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, and Eder Militao (with Alex Telles and Danilo as options) is the defense to use. A three-man midfield with Fred, Casemiro, and Lucas Paqueta (with Coutinho and Fabinho as options) is their best midfield. Their three-man offense should be composed of strikers Neymar, Vinicius Jr., and Richarlison (with Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Antony, and Rodrygo as options). This team should be able to take all World Cup 2022 comers on.
As trite, yet presumptuous as it may sound, this is Brazil’s cup to lose, because winning it should be a matter of playing their game, their way, well, each and every match. If they do this, they will erase the demons of France 2006, Holland 2010, Germany 2014, and Belgium 2018 and allow the Selecao to breathe easy should they not have a top team to bring to the cups in 2026 or 2030.
Serbia are a very competitive side and their strikers have been on a tear in the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga. They were tough opponents of Portugal in the qualifiers and are 7W-2L-1D in their last ten games. Though Switzerland outranks them the Serbs seem the team to beat for second place. Serb coach, Dragan Stojkovic, at the reins since March of 2021, guided his team over Portugal to qualify directly to Qatar. He is keenly aware of his team’s current form and keen for the cup to start yesterday to capitalize on their momentum. If he can keep them sharp, they will have a good cup.
Switzerland are always tough in any international tournament. Their current generation of players have played well at prior Nations Leagues, Euros, and World Cups and have often punched above their weight when it mattered most. They are the rightful favorites for second place and progression from this group.
Cameroon are outclassed by their other group mates which is what makes them so dangerous—they can go all out knowing they have nothing to lose. That the team has talent and experience is obvious from the 17 players on their roster that play in Europe’s top five leagues. If the Indomitable Lions can put it all together in time, and their form has been suspect when playing team outside Africa, they have an outside chance to progress if one of the other three stumble, repeatedly—but that seems an unlikely scenario.
If Brazil do not progress it would be the upset of the World Cup and their departure would unbalance the bracket and open the tournament up to myriad contenders. Papa believes they will progress.
Serbia should also progress, albeit with some good fortune.
Switzerland should be the second team to progress, but every World Cup has an expected good performer underperforming and Papa believes it will be the Swiss in this quadrennial event. Their slip-up will allow Serbia to progress.
Cameroon will produce some better football at this cup, but it will be in relation to what they have produced before and against their routine competition. In this group that will not suffice, and they will be fortunate not to lose every match.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is Yahoo Sports take on the Brazilians:
“Brazil enters Qatar as the World Cup favorite for a third straight time, having dominated a second straight qualifying cycle. Forty goals scored, and five conceded against South American opposition is almost unthinkably impressive. Of course, Brazil’s past two World Cup campaigns have ended in embarrassment and despair, respectively. And the 2014 team, we later realized, was flawed beyond repair, tactically and mentally. But the 2018 exit was fluky. This year’s team, still coached by Tite, still propelled by Neymar, with a mix of veterans and emerging youngsters throughout, is similarly strong.”
Here is ESPN on Switzerland:
“Recent form suggests that Switzerland will make it through. Less than a year ago, they dumped world champions France out of Euro 2020 at the second-round stage. The game to watch in this group will be [Switzerland v Serbia]. When the two nations met at Russia 2018, Swiss Granit Xhaka and Xheridan Shaqiri were both charged by FIFA after celebrating their goals in a 2-1 win by goading the Serbia supporters with an Albanian nationalist symbol. Both Xhaka and Shaqiri are players of Albanian-Kosovan heritage — Kosovo is not recognized by Serbia, and relations between the two countries remain tense. Xhaka and Shaqiri are now captain and vice-captain of Switzerland, so both are likely to be involved — and integral — against Serbia.”
Here is the UAE English language Gulf News on Serbia:
“Serbia and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic believes the best is yet to come for his national side, hoping they will extend their recent stellar form into the World Cup. They then finished top of their group in the Nations League, sealing promotion to top-tier League A. ‘We don’t need a lot of time to start playing together as a team and it’s critical in a national team for the players to know how everyone plays and thinks,” Mitrovic said. ‘Many of our players have really grown up together. We know each other very well. The best is yet to come. We’re in our prime. We all hope we’ll be in good form to experience the exciting times ahead of us … We’re sure we can achieve some really spectacular results.”
And here is ESPN on Cameroon:
“Cameroonian FA President Samuel Eto’o may have declared that Cameroon were still planning to reach the World Cup final, but there was little evidence to suggest they can take points from Switzerland, Serbia, or Brazil. Eto’o’s aim for Cameroon to remain in the tournament until Dec. 18 is laughable.”
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
The Cameroon Tribune focused on the trickling in of its players from abroad to join the local and non-European regional ones—”…three players who all play in Saudi Arabia are on break after the Saudi Pro League went on recess on October 16th, giving more time for players to begin preparing for the World Cup…”—into the national team training in Yaounde. “The Indomitable Lions are bracing ahead of the World Cup farewell friendly against Jamaica on November 9, 2022.”
Serbia’s news media is replete with coverage of the in-form members of their national team, particularly their strikers and midfielders. Politika newspaper covering Juventus’ last win highlighted Serbian player contributions to it and in particular: ”Serbian representative, Filip Kostic, [aided his team greatly] with two assists, first to Adrien Rabiot in the 52nd minute, and then to Nikola Fa?oli in the 84th minute [to secure the win over bitter rivals Inter Milan].”
Switzerland’s 20min focused on the goalkeeping concerns for their national team as Yann Sommer, injured in October might just be back in action this month. “I think it looks good for the World Cup, even if I remain cautious in my predictions and statements,” said Sommer. The issue is that “…today only Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel is 100% recovered, while Jonas Omlin and Yvon Mvogo (Lorient and recently injured in a Ligue 1 game) are recuperating and Sommer looks on the mend.”
Brazil’s O Globo newspaper had an opinion piece in which the hot topic of the moment, the Brazilian presidential election results which brought back left-leaning Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, and voted right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro out of office, resonated with the national football team via Neymar. It seems the striker went on TikTok to show his support for Bolsonaro and the politician’s opponents, including many involved in soccer, were displeased with the superstar’s politicization of the team. In response, the opinion columnist stated: “I restrict myself to sports, because I write about sports. I believe that the recent conflict between Neymar and opinion makers on the left can be educational in other areas. If you can’t support the Brazilian team, wear your shirt and support your main star, because you differ from him politically, we have serious problems in our democracy. Which are not resolved with the election of a candidate on the left, but with socializing and dialogue, particularly with people who think differently from you. Every day. Starting now.”
Sundry and/or Intangible
This group has three tiers—Brazil alone at the top, Serbia and Switzerland vying for second place, and Cameroon, lucky to be along for the ride. Absent a real game-changer event, a serious injury to a key player or two, officiating misconduct, a truly unlucky happenstance, or unexpected coaching or player error, this should be a Brazil-plus-one group and Papa believes Serbia is looking better than their other two group mates.
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group G might unfold come this winter.
The Swiss get their cup off to a good start scoring in each half and denying the Cameroonians of any real chance to get on the scoreboard.
Making a statement in their very first game, the Selecao are all business and are unlucky not to win by a larger score. The Brazilian defense stymies the potent Serbian attack just as the Canarinha’s midfield keeps up with their opponent’s technical and physical presence there. Brazil’s offense is jelling. Tite has found his starters and they increasingly click as the game progresses. He substitutes his key stars as the second half nears the 75th-minute mark keeping them fresh for the next match. Richarlison, Vinicius Jr., and Lucas Paqueta score off Neymar’s assists.
The Serbs get their frustrations out on the Africans, but the Cameroonians are having a good day and putting up a good fight. Both goals are scored in the waning moments of each half, but they count just the same and Serbia now draws even with the Swiss on points and goals.
The Swiss put on a stronger resistance than the Serbs, but the Brazilians have already found their groove and Neymar gets his revenge on the Rossocrociati for Russia 2018 with a rare, perfect hat trick. His three goals bring him even with Pele for most goals scored for the national team and put him toward the top of the Golden Boot sweepstakes competing with PSG teammates Mbappe and Messi. The Serbs and Swiss sit at three points and minus one goal differential each.
Wanting to both close with a bang and rest his superstars, Tite uses alternate midfield and striker lines but only rests a couple of defenders. The substitutes have already been infused with the starters’ mojo and they score twice in each half, allowing those who may not play much going forward to put their names into the 2022 World Cup record books.
The Brazilians keeping tabs at home know their 1970 World Cup winning team scored 19 goals and Ronaldo Phenomeno’s 2002 winning team scored 18. The 2022 edition has now scored 10 goals in three games, kept three clean sheets, and still has four games to go. What will the goals-scored number be then? Meanwhile, the Africans fulfill many a pundit’s forecast when declaring them “the weakest Cameroonian team to go to a World Cup.”
In the second-place decider, the Serbs score first and early putting the Swiss in the unaccustomed role of having to focus on offense. It does not go well for the Swiss who become increasingly out of sorts as the game progresses. They go into the locker room one goal down at halftime and concede within the first fifteen minutes of the resumption of action. Thereafter the game gets chippy with the Swiss getting a goal around the 75th-minute mark and the Serbs now becoming uncomfortable having to defend against the resurgent Swiss for nearly twenty minutes including stoppage time. But the Swiss, unable to break through, bow out of the cup.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Brazil 2. Serbia.
Photo: Brazil’s Vinicius Jr., Shutterstock ID 2139068269, by A. Ricardo.